KIRKUK, Iraq — For decades, Rizgar Ali Hamajan and his fellow Iraqi Kurds strove mightily to withstand the tyranny of Saddam Hussein and the Arab nationalists of Saddam's Baath Party, who moved thousands of Sunni Muslim Arabs to Kirkuk to cement the Arab hold on the oil-rich region.
Today, Kurds have returned and Arabs have fled, and Kurds now stand atop the shaky Kirkuk power structure. Hamajan is the chairman of the provincial council, presiding from a spacious office with fine rugs, a big desk, a sitting area and a long walnut conference table.
In a few months, Kirkuk could join the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government. Iraq's constitution calls for a vote on Kirkuk's annexation by the end of this year, and the Kurds are almost certainly numerous enough now to win the balloting — if politicians in Baghdad can agree on the terms for the referendum.
That puts men such as Hamajan in a formidable, if delicate, position. They're on the cusp of great power — a growing concern to anxious Arabs, Turkmens and other ethnic groups that populate the ever less peaceful province in northern Iraq.
So these days Hamajan is all about mellowed assurance.
"There is room in Kirkuk for all kinds of Iraqis," Hamajan said. "None of them need to be afraid."
The air in his office is frenetic. The tea is served quickly and piping hot. The air conditioning blows like a mountain breeze. Would you like a Marlboro? No? Never mind, Hamajan will chain-smoke as he chats you up between calls on his cell phone and greets a stream of obsequious visitors.
The prospect of carrying out a key provision of the Iraqi constitution — so-called Article 140, which would join Kirkuk province with autonomous Kurdistan — has created anxiety in many corners.
Sunni Arabs, who were the dominant force during Saddam's time, could become just another vulnerable minority. Turkmens worry they'll see more oppression at the hands of a new ethnic power. Neighboring Turkey is already firing shells across the border out of fear that Kurdish rebels in their country could soon have a wealthy sponsor nearby. Syria and Iran also worry that Kirkuk joining the Kurdistan Regional Government will embolden their Kurdish minorities.
Like much else in Iraq, part of the dispute is about oil. Kirkuk has huge, if poorly developed, oil fields that would give a Kurdish government enormous potential wealth.
The dispute also is partly a matter of ethnic rivalries that have long simmered here in ways that Baghdad and other areas of Iraq have seen only U.S.-led forces invaded Iraq in 2003.
The violence hasn't risen to the levels of the capital or Diyala or Anbar provinces. American officials in the area dispute suggestions that Kirkuk province is an ethnic tinderbox, a spark away from a civil war.
Still, roadside bombs are common. Gun battles break out regularly between U.S. forces and insurgents. And the tensions among rival groups have long histories full of violent bitterness. Car bombs are a regular threat in the city.
No date has been set for the vote. Indeed, Baghdad's deadlocked politicians have yet to put to paper any specifics. Kurds want to press forward. Arabs and Turkmens say that much in the constitution is vague and argue for holding off until violence in the region subsides.
"There is no security yet. ... The meaning of the constitution is not clear yet. Taking this (vote) now will make the situation more complicated," said Tahsin Kahya, a local Turkmen leader whose office in a building devoted to carrying out the referendum and its implications is decidedly more modest than the space given to Hamajan.
Sunni Arabs want to put off a referendum, arguing that despite the constitutional mandate for a vote this year there are no compelling events to justify a rush. What's more, they argue for a stronger federal government that considers regions of the country Iraqi rather than Kurd, Arab or otherwise.
"There are Christians here and Arabs here and Turkmens. In Baghdad, there are also Kurds. So why not give Baghdad to the Kurds? Kirkuk doesn't belong to Arabs or Kurds or Assyrians," said Abdul Kareem Ali, the mayor of Multaqa, a Sunni Arab enclave of 25,000 about 13 miles from Kirkuk. He has four wives — two Arab, one Kurdish, and one Turkmen. "Iraq should be all in one piece."
Sunni Arabs here can be divided clearly between those whose kin have lived in Kirkuk for centuries and those who came during Saddam's "Arabization" campaign, when Saddam offered Sunni Arabs cash to move to Kirkuk and he forced tens of thousands of Kurds to sell or surrender their homes.
When American forces moved into Iraq in 2003, Kurds began moving back, and Sunnis moved south. Currently, officials estimate that about half of the 1 million people in the province are Kurds.
Many Arabs say pressure is mounting for them to accept official aid to get out, even though they've lived nowhere else.
"The police get on their loudspeakers and tell us where to fill out our applications," said one Sunni Arab whose family came to Kirkuk in the days of Arabization. He didn't want to be identified for fear of being singled out for violence. "We all know where to get these forms. They're sending us a message that we must leave."
Meantime, Sunni Arabs whose families populated the province long before the discovery of oil in the 1920s say they feel intimidated by Kurdish domination. They complain that Kurdish soldiers and police target Arabs and Turkmens for harassment.
"The army is cooperating with the terrorists," Ali, the Sunni mayor of Multaqa, charged.
Hamajan and provincial Gov. Abdullah Rahman Fatah are keen to strike a moderate stance. They regularly insist that a union with the Kurdistan Regional Government is no reason for alarm.
"We don't have even one helicopter or one boat," Hamajan said. "We might have some old tanks from Saddam's war (with Iran). That's it."
The stance is calculated. A tougher one would be likely to incite violence from insurgents and al Qaida-linked groups and alarm Baghdad and other capitals.
"They need Baghdad's support, and they've got the issue of Turkey being perturbed by what might happen," said Howard Keegan, a U.S. State Department employee who's chief of the Kirkuk provincial reconstruction team. Keegan advises the regional government on repairing the physical infrastructure and molding a political system. He gave the Kurds high marks for not exploiting the boycott to push through a one-sided agenda.
And yet the prize of Kirkuk is great enough that Kurds may ultimately have a hard time sharing power.
"The Kurds cannot forget the memory of their forced displacement, destruction of their villages and the mass killings," Farid Assassard, director of a strategic studies center based in the Kurdish city of Sulaimaniyah, wrote in an article published recently in a Kurdish newspaper. "It is hard to imagine the Kurds making concessions on Kirkuk. ... Kirkuk is for the Kurds what Jerusalem is for the Palestinians."
(Canon reports for The Kansas City Star.)